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5th March 2023

Companions on the way

Passage: John 15;1-17


We learned a lot about Risk Assessments during Covid, didn’t we? What were the risks involved in opening the church; sitting on the pews; wearing or not wearing masks; singing; using objects such as Hymn books and Communion cups. Everything had to be thought through carefully, which took a lot of time but at least, I consoled myself, we had a Church Secretary then who had worked in high explosives for the Ministry of Defence, so he knew about the importance and use of risk assessments.

With the highlighting of Safeguarding issues in churches over recent years- how we take proper care and precautions when dealing with children and vulnerable adults, our Pastoral Visitors and Children’s workers now must undergo basic safeguarding training, so that they do not place themselves or those they care for in situations of high risk. This might sound tedious, but we all have the sense to know that it is necessary.

It has occurred to me, though, that the greatest risk of all in faith and in church life lies simply in taking up Jesus’ instruction to “love one another.” OK, being fairly nice comes naturally to many of us. Yes, there will always be some people who get up our nose or whom we find it hard to understand. But, we can at least be civilised, can’t we?
“Love one another” though, is not just about civilised or even nice behaviour. It is about letting someone get right inside your head, your heart and even your soul. When you get involved in relationships of any depth, you are opening yourself up to other people’s thoughts, beliefs, needs, and you are opening yourself out in allowing them access to your thoughts, beliefs, needs, meaning that “love” may radically change your life and the person you are. Julie Siddiqi, a Muslim working for peace in Palestine/Israel wrote “trying to see another opinion, meeting people different from us, getting to know what makes someone tick- that is hard, it’s messy, it can challenge us to the core.” Love carries a very high risk.

Jesus said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants but friends, because a servant does not know his master’s business.” That sounds nice: a step up in their relationship. But Jesus is leading them into a much higher risk situation. A servant will simply do as he is told and collect his wages at the end of the week. If he feels the work is too hard or the pay not enough, he will look for another job. So long as there are other masters and other jobs out there, he will be OK. But to become a friend means getting inside the master’s head, understanding what he is doing, why it is important, taking on board some of that importance for yourself. It means getting inside the master’s heart, sharing his joy and his pain; his sense of achievement and his sense of failure. It even means getting inside the master’s soul, encountering his beliefs, his sense of purpose, his relationship with God. And it means granting the master access to your own head, heart, and soul.

For those disciples, becoming “friends” rather than “servants” of Jesus did radically change their lives and the people they were. The same has been true of millions more who have found a friend in Jesus. Yes, they have found comfort, support, healing, salvation in this relationship but they have also had to open themselves up to radical change. To enter the heart of Jesus is to enter the heart of God and to allow God’s love to change the whole way you feel about yourself, about others and about the world. St Paul summed it up when he said, “It is no longer I who live but Christ.” His life was no longer about what he, personally wanted or about what he had once thought best. And nor was it about forcing himself, reluctantly, to “do his Christian duty.” His relationship with Jesus Christ had so transformed him, that the spirit of Christ was a living reality in his life every hour of every day. He lived in Christ and Christ lived in him. This meant that the people he encountered, whether easy or difficult, were an inextricable part of that relationship because Christ loved them too. Paul no longer related to them as “Paul” but as “Paul in Jesus.” It was challenging and it was life changing.

It may sound a bit “heavy” for us (don’t think I could cope with this), but we do know that as, human beings, our lives and characters are inevitably shaped by relationships anyway. Our parents -for better or worse- play a huge part in making us what we are; siblings, schoolfriends, professional mentors, partners- anyone who gets close to us is going to change us. Of some relationships we say, “it has been the making of her.” And of others we say, “it is bringing out the worst in him.” But, for better or worse, no-one can live in total isolation and continue to grow in their humanity. It was Evelyn Waugh who wrote that “to know and love another person is the root of all wisdom.” He was writing of Charles Ryder’s close friendship with Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, a relationship which proved complex and not altogether positive but for Charles, it was a coming to life; a whole new understanding of who he was.

There is a line in a prayer from Iona which says to God, “You are the light and the love I see in others’ eyes.” Many people have brought us closer to God, even some who might call themselves non-religious. Many people we love have brought us great wisdom, even whilst claiming that they don’t know much. If St John was right in saying that God is Love, then it will be that as we take the risk of loving, we find ourselves entering the heart of God himself and there finding the person we most truly are. I have lost count of the Pastoral Visitors who claim to have received as much if not more blessing from the people they befriend as they ever hoped to give.
Another line, from Les Misérables: to love another person is to see the face of God. And God’s face is not always a happy face. It can be filled with pain and frustration because a God who loves is going to be a God who suffers when lives precious to him go badly wrong. But God’s love is such that it cannot be destroyed by hatred or rejection and, as other people bring us to know and love God, so God’s love in us transforms not only our lives but the lives of those we relate to. Loving God has always been a risky business but what we stand to gain far outweighs the risks. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&

During the weeks of Lent we are thinking about life as a pilgrimage- a journey of discovery. Today we celebrate our Companions on the Way- the people who, in coming close to us, show us the way, support us when the going gets tough, help us identify the right signposts and keep us close to the heart of God, our guide and our goal. Many of these companions will have been found in this church community and companionship in faith is the very essence of a church’s identity. It is one of the main reasons why we are here.

So, the challenge I leave you with, as this church prepares to move into a period of ministerial vacancy, is how deeply do you love your church? How much love are you prepared to risk in order to maintain it as a living faith community; a place of Christian companionship; the face of God to the world?
Jesus said, I no longer call you servants but friends and sometimes being a servant is the easier option. You go to church out of a sense of duty. You collect what you think you have earned in terms of worship experience, friendship, support in a crisis. And, if you start to think that the duty is not worth the reward, you look for somewhere else.
Whereas being a friend takes commitment. It means getting alongside each other and sharing faith, hope, love, ministry, even disappointment and confusion. It means getting involved in creating and in sharing a vision for the future. It means supporting one another in prayer and offering help where needed (and everybody can do something).

It means maintaining loyalty in worship- there is a very varied programme waiting to take effect from the beginning of May. And you can take it from me that, no matter how many times you repeat that verse about “wherever two or three are gathered in my name,” there are few things more discouraging than facing a church which is nearly empty or attending a service in a large space with very few others present. It is also true that if you come to worship with a heart urgently seeking the word of God and the good of Christ’s church, then you will hear that word and you will help that “good” even if the worship as a whole is “not quite your kind of thing.”

You all need each other if this church is to grow (and many churches do grow during a vacancy) and to move forward into the future God will create in you and through you. Maintaining the commitment of love will at times feel like a high risk but let us all hope and pray that the risk will be infinitely worth the taking. Amen.